WASHINGTON – Vegetarian groups are trying to use Asian bird flu to drive a wedge between people and the meat on their dinner plates.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) staged a small demonstration on Wednesday outside Agriculture Department headquarters with banners telling people, "Bird Flu Kills: Go Vegetarian."
Three protesters wearing only underwear and flowers lay in cardboard coffins while people in chicken and turkey suits offered vegetarian starter-kit brochures to passers-by.
Vegetarian groups argue that meatless diets would help eliminate poultry farms where the disease spreads. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is offering a similar vegetarian starter kit on its Web site.
At a counterprotest near PETA's, a food industry-backed group accused PETA of lying.
"Everyone — the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. — has said very plainly, you cannot get bird flu from eating cooked chicken. It's not possible," said Andrew Porter, spokesman for the group, the Center for Consumer Freedom.
In the event that the flu strain affecting Asian countries does reach the U.S., KFC, also known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, is preparing television commercials to assure people that chicken is safe to eat if bird flu breaks out in its markets.
National Chicken Council spokesman Richard Lobb said there is no reason for consumers to worry.
"Even if we did have an outbreak, which is unlikely, it's going to be very limited," Lobb said. "And the number of birds involved will be very small."
The U.S., which will produce 9.5 billion birds this year, prohibits imports of poultry from countries where there is bird flu.
The virulent H5N1 bird flu strain has killed at least 63 people in Southeast Asia since 2003.